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Sunday, February 14, 2021

Where have we gone wrong?

Yesterday, only seven Republicans voted to convict Donald Trump, and the 57-43 vote fell well short of the necessary two-thirds majority to end his national political career. That represented significant progress over the last thirteen months, since only one Republican, Mitt Romney, voted to convict him the first time, when the evidence of his guilt was just as overwhelming, and the offense was essentially the same one, illegally attempting to change the result of an election.  The nation and the Republican Party may pay a heavy price for the failure to convict in the next four years.

That failure, of course, owed a lot to the erosion of truth as a principle of our public life.  Feelings now trump truth on both sides of the political fence, but the problem is worse among the Republicans, who  have had to sacrifice any respect for truth to maintain support for Trump and the affection of his hard-core followers.  That emerged from a remarkable exchange between George Stephanopoulos and Rand Paul about whether the election had been stolen, which is the subject today of an article in the New York Times Magazine.  Stephanopoulos repeatedly pressed Paul to acknowledge that Biden had won the election fairly, and this Paul refused to do.  Paul also accused Stephanopolous of making himself part of the story by flatly stating his own opinion that Biden clearly had won, instead of simply balancing Paul's own opinion with that of another guest who would have said the same thing.  (As a matter of fact, based on the youtube clip of the exchange, which you can easily find, that had been Stephanopolous's plan, but something went wrong and he was unable to get his Democratic guest on the air.)  Paul claimed falsely that the more than 60 judges who had dismissed Trump's lawsuits against election results had done so on grounds of lack of standing, rather than on grounds of lack of evidence.  He also claimed, tellingly, that we could not ignore the claim that the election was stolen simply because tens of millions of Republicans thought that it was.  The author of the article, Jason Zengerle, seems perplexed by the situation himself. If the Sunday morning shows refuse to talk to Republicans who will tell lies, he says, they will become indistinguishable from shows on MSNBC.

I don't think there is any simple institutional or procedural solution to this problem.  The political leaders of the early Republic--children of the Enlightenment that they were--frequently remarked that democracy could only work if the citizenry were enlightened and valued reason over partisan passion.  As early as 1801, in his first inaugural address, Jefferson worried about the violent partisanship that had emerged during his election, and tried to dampen it--successfully as it turned out--by declaring, "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans."  Passion--including racial and ethnic prejudice, greed, and envy--has of course always played some role in American politics, but for a long time, I have come to believe, rhetorical traditions kept it in check.   Our sound bite culture came along relatively recently, and American voters spent much more time reading or listening to their political leaders' long speeches even half a century ago than they do now.  Reading as an avocation has lost enormous ground just in the last two decades or so, and newspapers have gotten less and less popular. They too have responded by emphasizing emotion over reason and facts, expanding their opinion pages and highlighting them much more as a part of their marketing, and selecting news stories that will tweak their readers' deepest feelings.  That is as true of the Washington Post and the New York Times as it is of Fox News--even though I would agree that the Post and Times readers have somewhat better judgment.   Last. but hardly least, powerful economic interests have waged endless campaigns against truths that are dangerous to their interests.  They have persuaded most of our elites that our new, finance-based economy actually serves all our interests (it doesn't), and so far they have managed to stop serious government action against climate change.  Henry Adams warned in his presidential address to the American Historical Association that any truth that historical science uncovered would make large and important constituencies very angry.  He was right.  Meanwhile, as I have mentioned many times, truth, data, and objectivity have also fallen out of fashion in our universities, where the Enlightenment is now far more likely to be "problematized" than celebrated or emulated.

It is very easy for liberals to turn out hundreds of words lamenting the state of the Republican Party and listing its various errors and untruths.  I do that relatively little largely because I know it won't change any Republican minds, and because it diverts Democrats from focusing on the serious problems within their own party.  Patriotism, to me, means, among other things, holding your own nation to a higher standard, and I see party loyalty the same way.  I am disgusted beyond measure by Mitch McConnell, who yesterday followed up on his vote for acquittal with a speech explaining why Trump was guilty as charged.  But I am also appalled by this Washington Post op-ed by Vice President Kamala Harris, which discusses the economic impact of the pandemic entirely from the perspective of the 5.1 million women who have lost their jobs, without the slightest acknowledgement that exactly the same fate has befallen 4.1 million men.  FDR in his first inaugural address declared, "Our greatest task is to put people to work." Not men. Not women. People.  Perhaps he understood that male and female votes counted equally--and that any effective solution would help both.

Most of our leading institutions now run on a mixture of self-interest and ideology, and visible independent voices are very rare.  I write these posts for the benefit of readers who want something different, and who are trying, like myself, to keep their heads while many around us are losing theirs.  I hope that the younger ones among us, at least, will see the pendulum swing back towards calm and reason  Meanwhile, we can all try to keep those qualities alive.


Bozon said...


Very good and helpful discussion.

Although many people instinctively now think of themselves as patriots:
"Patriotism, to me, means, among other things, holding your own nation to a higher standard, and I see party loyalty the same way..." DK,

it has a long history with other senses, not at all necessarily synonymous with nationalism, some neither wholesome nor savoury. See Clark, Our Shadowed Present, Index.

Samuel Johnson remarked, tellingly,
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel! p. 91

All the best

Unknown said...

Thanks David. Trump and his folks put together an unholy alliance of folks and causes who were willing to hold their noses and let the ends justify the means. I think folks like Mitch thought no one would really get hurt. Well - people were hurt and our democracy is weakened. I think the alliance will fray - but how fast and will more violence occur.

Doug Ptacek Jr said...

Hello Professor. I am a regular reader of yours and feel I’ve learned a lot from you over the years, but one point in this post that I question is the idea that the press in the past was less opinion oriented. I thought that newspapers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century were generally highly partisan. I did a quick google search and found this article:


While we no doubt live in a highly polarized media environment and social media has made that worse, I wonder if it really was that much better in the past.
Douglas Ptacek

Bozon said...

Re Where have we go wrong?
This is a very complicated question.

I suggest a start is Intellectuals and Race, Ch 3 "Changing Racial Beliefs".

These are your posts excerpts:

How the left has gone wrong

The NAACP successfully fought a long battle on two fronts, legal and political, to end legal segregation. Its alliances with organized labor, Jewish groups, and mainline Christian churches played a huge role in its legislative victories.

Activism, then and now, Part II

"The Black struggle for self-determination is the strategic leading force of the US revolution…. Black and Third World people’s right to determine the direction of their struggle is undeniable. Self-determination means the right of oppressed people to seize and organize their future and the future of their children…. Whatever decisions Black people and other oppressed peoples make in exercising this right to self-determination, white revolutionaries and anti-imperialists have a very clear-cut responsibility to support those decisions once they are arrived at. This does not mean to support only those choices one approves of." Kathy Boudin was a white member of the Weather Underground who helped carry out a 1981 armored car robbery on Long Island in which a guard and two police officers were killed. Twenty years later, in the midst of a long prison sentence, she claimed that she hadn't known anything about the robbery in detail but had willingly participated in it because she supported a struggle that was "not my struggle. I certainly don’t have the right to criticize anything. The less I would know and the more I would give up total self, the better—the more committed and the more moral I was."

All the best

Doug Ptacek Jr said...

Hello Professor,
I wrote a comment a couple of days ago, but I think I made a mistake when I typed it.
I think I said "eighteenth and early nineteenth century" when I actually meant "nineteenth and early twentieth century". If you choose to publish my comment, I would appreciate it if you correct that.

Doug Ptacek

David Kaiser said...

Dear Doug,

You are right about the media in the 19th and early 20th century. It was highly partisan then as well, and we have had eras of division comparable to this one. The change was in the middle third of the twentieth century and it didn't last that long.